Picts: The Mysterious People of Early Scotland

Mysterious stones with cryptic symbols, silver treasure hoards, and crumbling ruins. The Picts appear to be a fabled people of Scotland, yet they are very real and very fascinating.

May 21, 2023By Anthony Arcane, BA Anthropology (Archaeology Concentration), MSc Ancient Cultures

picts mysterious people scotland


The Picts were an Iron Age society that existed in Scotland from 79 to 843 CE when the Dál Riata king, Kenneth Mac Alpin, took the Pictish Kingship. The Picts would assimilate and lose their Pictish identity when Kenneth Mac Alpin established the Kingdom of Scotland, a sovereign state that would survive approximately 850 years. Although the Picts left no written record of themselves, they would be recorded in the writings of their contemporaries; the Irish, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Romans. The Picts, on the other hand, did leave behind a plethora of brilliant Pictish stones, silver hoards, and unique architectural structures that allow their history to be researched today.


Who Were the Picts?

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Summerston Stone from the Antonine wall depicting Romans defeating natives of Scotland, 142 – 143 CE, via Hunterian Museum, Glasgow


Due to the enigmatic nature of the Pictish people, it is only fitting for their origins to be heavily debated. According to historian James E. Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland (2009), the Picts were a confederation of tribes that existed as early as 79 CE, two centuries before the term Picti would be utilized.


According to the Pictish Chronicle, a collection of medieval manuscripts, there were seven Pictish kingdoms — Círcinn, Fótla, Fortriu, Fíb, Cé, Fidaid, and Cat. Although the academic community debates the legitimacy and connection of these names to actual locations, they cannot be disregarded.


 What Does Pict Means? 


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Generally, there are two hypotheses. Some scholars believe that the word ‘Picts’ derives from the Latin Picti, meaning ‘the painted people’, due to Pictish warriors apparently painting their bodies with dye. Picti, likely a term that encompassed all of the inhabitants north of Hadrian’s Wall, was coined in 297 CE by the Roman orator Eumenius. But, was the name Picti an accurate and self-explanatory name given to the tribes of Scotland by the Romans?


Opposed to the Picts as painted people, some scholars believe that ‘Picti‘ is a Latinisation of the name ‘Pecht‘ meaning ‘the ancestors’, a name that the people of northern Scotland gave themselves.


Wars With Rome

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Deskford Carnyx Head, 80 – 200 CE, via National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


Despite being divided into separate kingdoms or tribes, the Picts were relatively peaceful. Battles between tribes were said to occur solely for livestock raiding and other minor incidents. The coalitions against the Romans stand out among all of these conflicts. When invaders arrived, the Pictish clans banded together and picked a single chief to command the coalition, much like the continental Celts did during Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.


Three times, the Romans sought to conquer Caledonia — roughly what is now Scotland. Each effort though was brief. Around 70 CE, governor Agricola led Roman armies deep into Caledonia under the leadership of Emperor Vespasian and his sons. Despite winning the Battle of Mons Graupius against the Picts in 83 CE, the conquest was abandoned, and soldiers withdrew within a few years due to a shortage of manpower on other Roman fronts. Roman forces relocated between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. In 122 CE, Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.


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Hadrian’s Wall, via English Heritage


Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, ordered forces to push north again. They occupied Scotland as far as Perth and began building another wall in 142 CE, the Antonine Wall. This military campaign was brief. After Pius’s death in 161 CE, Roman soldiers retreated to Hadrian’s Wall by 165 CE. Due to Pictish incursions in the early third century, Emperor Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla led a large military campaign to eradicate the troublesome Picts in the Stirling and Perth areas in 208 CE. According to Cassius Dio, in addition to Pictish incursions, Severus wished to subjugate the whole island, a final effort of the Roman conquest. The Picts, however, had learned not to face Rome directly. Using guerrilla tactics, they corroded the Roman army and prevented their defeat. Due to a fatal illness, Severus died in York in 211 CE, and his sons returned to Rome.


Although the Roman conquest of the northern frontier was finished, Rome would continue to be involved in Scotland until the fifth century, when the Roman Empire finally crumbled.


Did the Picts Disappear?

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Kenneth Alpine II, King of Scotland (843-63 CE), by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II, 1684-1686, via Royal Collection Trust, London


Often romanticized as a ‘lost tribe’ or a people that seemingly vanished into thin air, the Picts are at the forefront of imagination and inaccurate theories. However, there is an accepted hypothesis proposed by Alex Woolf in his book From Pictland to Alba 789-1070 (2007). By 900 CE, the Picts did not disappear but more appropriately assimilated with the Dál Riata under the first king of Alba, Kenneth McAlpin I. Although that answer is less mystical, it does not take away from the complexity of Pictish history. Due to the merging of Picts, Dál Riata, and eventually, the Anglians, Pictish identity would fade away, and the Kingdom of Scots would be born. The Kingdom of Scots would be a sovereign state for around 850 years and continue to fight against the threat of colonization by its neighbors.


Attire: Did the Picts Fight Naked

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Pict warrior holding a head, by John White, 1585-1593 CE, via British Museum, London


Mangy, naked, tattooed, and ruthless warriors. The all but accurate picture of Pictish people. The blame, however, does not rest with the fantasizers but with unfavorable translations of ancient texts and exaggerated depictions produced by John White between 1585 and 1593 CE. In reality, the Picts never portrayed themselves in such ways. On the contrary, these enigmatic peoples appear well-groomed and fully dressed on the numerous stones they left behind, such as the famous Hilton of Cadboll. However, the Pictish stones aren’t the only visual source of Pictish attire. Located 2,400 kilometers from Scotland in the ancient city of Volubilis, Morocco, a captive Pict is depicted wearing tartan leggings on a bronze statue of Roman Emperor Caracalla.


According to archaeological evidence, the Picts wore hooded cloaks, tunics, short hooded capes, and even trousers. The hem of some garments is even decorated with patterns. In addition to clothing, Pictish aristocrats wore silver brooches, chains, and weapons.


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Pictish dress displayed on the Birsay Stone, 701 – 800 CE, via National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


There is very little evidence to suggest that the Picts fought naked. So, where did this common misconception originate? Needless to say, the Romans were the proprietors of such an idea. On numerous distance slabs from Antonine’s Wall, the Romans depicted the Picts in the most vulnerable of ways, naked and at the mercy of Roman forces.


Pictish Stones

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Pictish stone from the Isle of Skye, 201 – 400 CE, via National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


Scattered across northern Scotland, the Pictish stones are among the iconic features of Pictish culture. There are three classes of Pictish Stone – Class I (dating from the 3rd  – 7th centuries), Class II (dating from the 7th – 9th centuries), and Class III (dating from the 8th – 10th centuries). The older Class I and Class II can be decorated with zoomorphic images, abstract Pictish symbols, humanoid figures, and supernatural beings. Pictish stone I and II iconographies are as puzzling to researchers as hieroglyphs to those unfamiliar with the anient Egyptian writing. Unlike Jean Francois Champollin’s deciphering of the hieroglyphics, there is no Pictish Rosetta Stone to aid in understanding the meaning of these mysterious characters.


Despite the uncertain purpose of the stones and the unclear meaning of their symbols, scholars do believe that Pictish symbols are part of a written language. Class III Pictish stones, unlike Class I and II, lack enigmatic iconographies and are more comprehensible. Due to the intense Christianisation of Pictland, Class III stones are only decorated with Christian iconography and are often placed in religious landscapes. Perhaps one day the Pictish stone markings will be deciphered, and everyone will be able to hear precisely what the Picts intended to say. However, for the time being, the stones remain a fascinating enigma.


Pictish Silver Hoards

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St. Ninian’s Isle treasure hoard, 750 – 825 CE, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


Very much like the Vikings, Pictish aristocrats buried large hoards of silver and aristocratic items. However, as empires fade, so do the memories of their treasures. As a result, archaeologists are now discovering these hoards, allowing a more accurate understanding of Pictish artistry and culture.


In Iron Age Scotland, gold and bronze were the marks of prestige. However, that changed with the coming of the Romans. Having pulled back to Hadrian’s wall and abandoned the Antonine wall, the Romans stopped trying to conquer Scotland through force and tested the path of trade and bribery. An essential tool for that mission was silver. Silver was an everyday currency in the Roman economy, but it was not a common resource in Scotland. Due to its rarity, silver in Scotland was highly valued. By trading silver to certain tribes and not others, the Romans sought to create descent and tension between Pictish tribes. However, eventually, the Pictish armies would band together against the Romans. Pictish hoards would contain an array of artifacts such as Roman coins, silver artifacts, glass, and gold. However, not all hoards contained solely Roman artifacts. Let’s take a look at two famous cases.


I. Norrie’s Law Hoard

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Leaf-shaped silver plaques from Norrie’s Law Hoard, 500 – 600 CE, via National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


Dating between 500 and 600 CE, Norrie’s Law hoard is one of the largest Pictish hoards ever unearthed. Discovered in 1819 by an unknown person, the hoard originally weighed up to 12 kilograms. However, due to most of the silver likely being sold and melted down, less than a kilogram of the hoard is present at the National Museum of Scotland today.


Despite there being 170 silver pieces, most of it is in the form of hack-silver, fragments of cut silver objects that were used as weighted currency. Only four complete silver objects of the hoard survive today; a plaque decorated with Pictish symbols, a large brooch, a large handpin, and a spiral finger ring. Norrie’s Law hoard is significant because it is a prime example of how Roman silver was recycled and reworked into prestigious Pictish artifacts.


II. St. Ninian’s Isle Hoard

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Silver scabbard chape with Latin inscriptions, 750 – 825 CE, via National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


Discovered in 1958, another significant hoard is the St. Ninian’s Isle hoard, which dates between 750 and 825 CE. Considered to be the only Pictish treasure known in its entirety, St. Ninian’s hoard housed 28 silver objects and weighed up to 1918 grams. Most of the hoard consisted of brilliantly crafted bowls, brooches, and decorative elements removed from weapons. Adding to the importance of St. Ninian’s Isle hoard, a silver scabbard chape has an Old English prayer inscription. Why is that important? The artifact being Pictish in design and having an Old English inscription leads some scholars to believe some of the items in the hoard may have been exchanged between Pictish and early English aristocrats. Supporting that the hoard likely belonged to an aristocratic family, the artifacts are grouped into the following three categories: feasting, weapons, and jewelry. As time progresses and archeology and technology evolve, the amount of Pictish silver hoards will likely continue to increase and allow scholars to understand the Pictish elite better.


Pictish Architecture

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Digital reconstruction of Dun da Lamh Pictish hillfort, by Bob Marshall, 2020, via Cairngorms National Park Authority, Grantown-on-Spey


Although the Picts are most renowned for their cryptic stones, they also built spectacular structures such as hill forts, coastal forts, and potentially brochs. Pictish hill forts commonly associated with high status are distinguished by a fortified summit and ramparts that delineate a series of lower terraces. Constructed on large hills towering over the land, these forts would be exceptionally secure and convey a message of power to outsiders. Inland hills were not the only location where the Picts built their magnificent forts. Originally thought to be constructed by Romans or Vikings, Burghead Fort is not just Scotland’s largest coastal fort, but also the largest Pictish fort discovered in the country. These forts would be attacked by Dál Riata Scots, Northumbrians, and Vikings. Despite the Picts’ constant strife, the remains of these brilliant constructions still survive.



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Dun Troddan Broch, 400 BCE – 100 CE, photograph by Colin McLean, via colinmcleanphotography.com


Only found in Scotland, brochs are a type of circular-fortified house that has one entrance leading to an open circular center. A key feature of brochs is that they have two walls, producing a hollow-walled tower that can stand up to 13 meters in height, such as the Broch of Mousa. Depending on the broch’s size, chambers were relatively small, as were the supposed storage areas. To compensate for the limited area, stairs were placed into the gap between the walls, enabling access to upper wooden platforms. The origin and builders of brochs are still heavily debated.


Pictish Christians and Pictish Pagans

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Trial design on Pictish lead piece, 700 – 900 CE, via National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


Pictish religion was largely Christian between 601 and 800 CE, as evidenced by later Pictish stone iconography and cross-slabs. Traveling from Iona and Northumbria, missionaries played a significant part in the christianization of Pictland. The cult of Saints was, as in the rest of Christian lands, of great importance in later Pictland. Saint Palladius, Saint Patrick, Saint Ninian, Saint Columba, and others would convert the majority of Pictland to Christian customs. However, Christianity was not the only religion practiced by the Picts. Before their conversion, the Picts were said to have practised the same religion as the rest of Britain and Gaul, Druidism. According to Adamnán of Iona (624 – 704 CE) in The Life of Columba, Saint Columba had an encounter with a hostile Pictish druid by the name of Broichan. Although there is no additional written material to establish the Picts’ link to actual druidism, Pictish stones and artifacts do suggest a strong association with a celtic-polytheistic religion.

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By Anthony ArcaneBA Anthropology (Archaeology Concentration), MSc Ancient CulturesAnthony Arcane is an experienced explorer, archaeologist, academic, adventure-athlete, and classicist with a focus on Eastern and European material culture. Arcane's focus is emphasized through the study of material culture and ancient texts in: Greek, Roman, Celtic, Viking and Late Norse, Egyptian, Scythian, Native American, and the Ancient Kingdoms of Britain. Arcane founded Horizons International Archaeological and Environmental Co. Arcane has been approached by National Geographic and the Discovery Channel due to his intense passion for the ancient world. Having traveled the world, Arcane is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the Explorers' Club.